Dum Dum Girls’ latest set of retro-rock is heavy on the formula, but who cares when the formula’s this good?
Pop music doesn't have to be anything but pop music. It doesn't have to enlighten, or challenge, or do anything except make me want to play it again. Sure, Katy can brag about kissing girls, the Pistols can slag off the Queen, and the Archies can make me their candy girl, but what really matters is the few minutes of aural pleasure they provide. In that sense, all great pop music is the same, which is just as it should be.
So if I start this review of Too True by pointing fingers at Dum Dum Girls’ pop formula, does it make a difference? Singer/songwriter/guitarist Dee Dee Penny and her talented crew are serving up another platter of irresistible earworms, continuing to build on their garage roots with classic post-punk seasonings and references, delivered with sides of shimmering guitars, booming drums, and hook after hook. The songs crash and weave, layering a chilly sheen upon a big, retro sound, and the production -- slick but homemade -- carries just the right amount of heft and attitude. Whether or not you’re familiar with Dum Dum Girls, this is winning stuff, smart and tuneful, heavy enough to command attention but light enough to keep you bopping along.
About that formula, though: it’s a bit like those "once you see it" memes. Once you realize that nearly every song has precisely the same structure, every chorus is loaded with the kind of melodic titular repetition designed to burrow into your brain, every set of lyrics is just dark enough to be palatable to the goth set and, well, once you see it, it’s a bit harder to take in the album as a whole. You might come away from Too True feeling like brief 30-minute set is better taken in smaller doses, like the parts are greater than the whole.
But still -- what parts! Songs like "Cult of Love", "Are You Okay", and the wonderfully dramatic "Too True to Be Good" burst with pop joy, even when the lyrics take a vaguely icy, troubling turn. Dee Dee is in top voice, and her emotional restraint is welcome as she avoids gilding the lily on songs that provide their own drama. And the rest of her crew -- Jules on guitar, Sandy on drums, Malia on bass -- is right in tune with the '80s darkwave mood that drips all over this music. Check out the palpable delight Dee Dee creates by turning the words "Evil Blooms" into an entire chorus, and listen to those Smiths-like guitars backing her up. Check out her dive into dark teen angst on "Are You Okay" ("But what if it doesn't go away? / What if this feeling always plays? / I’m reckless at night and sorry for days") or the lonely shimmer of "In the Wake of You", which calls to mind the Go-Go’s at their most post-punk (with Jane Wieldin on the lead). There is no denying the bliss of these cuts. Even when the lyrics threaten to become uncomfortable, the music is effortlessly life-affirming.
Besides, sometimes the lyrics really do shake us up a bit. "Rimbaud Eyes" repeats the chorus line ("You got Rimbaud eyes") over the slices of Arthur Rimbaud poetry that make up the verses (I picked up "I can no more / Bathed in your langours / O waves, sail in your wake" from "The Drunken Boat"), and you’re left to wonder if Dee Dee is a true believer or if she’s taking subtle swipes at the would-be coffeehouse literates who drop names they learned from Eddie and the Cruisers. Same goes for "Lost Boys and Girls Club", which either caters to or satirizes the disenfranchised youth demo with lines like "I rise and shine / And I look behind / Your eyes like black X’s of hate and hexes." The ice-cool video suggests there’s more behind Dee Dee’s gaze than she’s letting on, but again, that repeated chorus is so disarming, and the music so charmingly Siouxsie-like, you’ll be hard-pressed to do anything but nod along in gratitude.
If Dum Dum Girls don’t shift away too much from their signature sound, they still provide a solid, satisfying variety of intensity and tempo. "Cult of Love" offers some nifty Cramps-like minor-key guitar work and appropriately creepy echo, while "Little Minx" is speedy post-punk, decorated with some thrillingly clean guitar lines to enhance the fuzz. "Under These Hands", a diatribe against uniforms and conformity, slows down the groove and adds acoustics to streamline the stomp. "Trouble" cuts the tempo in half, allowing the weeping tremolo guitar and I-IV-V progression to augment the darkly clever and surreal lyrics Dee Dee whispers so they settle in your soul.
Listen, it may not bother you one bit that Dee Dee almost never alters the recipe to her songcraft. Hell, you could say the same about Chuck Berry or James Brown. Why mess around when you can consistently produce such soaring rock gems? If, like me, you agree Too True should be taken in smaller doses and divvied up into playlists, so be it. It should still be taken. Great pop is a terrible thing to waste.